Man denies safety breach charge
Seven people died in a massive motorway pile-up involving more than 30 cars when they were engulfed by a thick smog caused by the smoke from a firework display, a court heard today.
The smog was so thick and dense that motorists likened it to having a tin of paint thrown over their windscreens.
Prosecutors say that motorists on the northbound carriageway of the M5 near Taunton in Somerset had "no chance" as they drove along at around 8.20pm on the evening of November 4, 2011.
Anthony and Pamela Adams, Maggie and Michael Barton, Malcolm Beacham, Terry Brice and Kye Thomas died and 51 people were injured, including some seriously, in the pile-up.
A total of 34 vehicles, including cars and lorries, were involved in the crash on the motorway when they were driven into a thick smog, which had blown across the northbound carriageway from the firework display at the nearby Taunton Rugby Club.
Prosecutors allege that Geoffrey Counsell, who was the contractor in charge of the display, breached health and safety rules by failing to ensure the safety of others.
Bristol Crown Court heard how Counsell, who ran Firestorm Pyrotechnics, set off 1,500 shots in just 15 minutes - just 200 metres from the motorway.
Peter Blair QC, prosecuting, told the jury: "The prosecution will be asserting that he (Counsell) had serious weaknesses in his planning.
"Essentially the prosecution say they experienced a loss of visibility, generated, we say, by a plume of smoke created by Mr Counsell from his firework display which had built up.
"It was dispersed because of the lack of wind mixed with the humid air and drifted in the direction of the motorway."
Mr Blair said a number of vehicles passed safely through the early stages of the smog - with some drivers later recalling the smell of firework smoke.
"The next group were less fortunate. They were in the vehicles that ended up in a multi-vehicle pile-up.
"Fifty one injured, some severely, seven people died. The prosecution say this was no ordinary patch of fog that just happened to be there that evening.
"Many of the descriptions they gave of the atmosphere were remarkable and distinctive. Some of them spoke of it as being as if someone had tipped a tin of paint over their windscreen.
"Their headlights had no effect whatsoever on penetrating what was in front of them. It was impossible to see what was ahead of them and the inevitable consequence was the multiple pile up."
Counsell, 51, from Ashill, Somerset faces a charge of failing to ensure the safety of others contrary to the Health and Safety at Work Act. He denies the allegation.
The trial before Mr Justice Simon is expected to last up to six weeks.
Mr Blair said the display was due to start at 8pm and was being attended by many people.
"There was much excitement and anticipation about the show. Mr Counsell no doubt wanted to put on a good show for them," Mr Blair said.
"There was a large crowd in the main stand of the rugby club and there were others around the western side of the pitch.
"So the scene was set for the show to begin and it began at 8pm."
Mr Blair continued: "We will call evidence to the effect that when Geoffrey Counsell started off his display smoke just built up and built up. It started low and it lingered and it was not being dispersed away and cleared.
"..The visibility had deteriorated so quickly and dramatically that they (the crowd) couldn't even see across the rugby pitch.
"People will express they had not seen so much smoke at a display. For other witnesses the smoke had become a distraction from the fireworks themselves.
"If they could not see the launch area, we suggest, there was little chance Mr Counsell could see have seen the crowds in the stands either."
Mr Blair described the blanket of thick smoke as a smog - something more akin to the smogs seen in London in the 1940s and 1950s.
"It may be an over simplification to call it smoke because that smoke can interact with air to create that impenetrable smoke that is more difficult to penetrate than smoke or air on its own," he told the court.
"It was humid that night and several witnesses will talk of mist, which was at knee height."
The court heard how the first collisions took place on the northbound carriageway about six minutes after the firework display had finished.
Calculations later found the distance from the rugby club stand to the front of the damaged cars to be just 205 metres.
Mr Blair told the jury they would hear during trial from a meteorologist from the Met Office who would be able to give detailed evidence of the weather that night in Somerset.
Jurors also watched videos recorded by people watching the display from a nearby village, as well as photographs taken by spectators at the rugby club, CCTV taken from a passing train on the nearby railway line and footage from a coach on the southbound carriageway before the pile up.
Mr Blair said that in normal conditions a car travelling at 70mph could expect to come to a halt within 96 metres - or 24 car lengths - while those travelling at 60mph could stop within 73 metres.
But the prosecutor said experts examining this case estimated the stopping distance for vehicles travelling at 60mph on that stretch of road to be greater than 93 metres.
"The drop in visibility was such as to give vehicles on the M5 no chance of stopping within the distance that they could see ahead," Mr Blair said.
"With visibility at effectively zero there would have no opportunity for drivers to have reacted and avoided what came in their path."
He added that the temperature that night was between 8C and 9C.
Mr Blair also told the jury about the types of fireworks Counsell was using for the display.
"He was not handling little rockets or bangers that you or I might acquire for our use with our children in our back gardens in November," the prosecutor said.
"He was handling hazardous explosives. He required a licence from the council to store these and he had such a licence.
"They are the kind of fireworks that you and I couldn't go and buy. They are categorised in European law. It is perfectly obvious that fireworks like these can be dangerous."
The trial was adjourned until tomorrow.